Matt Johnson Book review – Shell shock; The Diary of Tommy Atkins

Shell Shock by Neil Blower


Published by Firestep Press

£1 from each sale is donated to the UK Military PTSD charity, Combat Stress.


oh, but it’s Tommy this and Tommy that

and ‘Chuck him out, the brute.’

But it’s ‘saviour of his country’

when the guns begin to shoot.

Rudyard Kipling 1892.

‘Tommy Atkins’ is a slang expression used to describe an ordinary soldier in the British Army.

Although mostly associated with the First World War where German soldiers would call ‘Tommy’ across no man’s land to speak to the British soldiers, it is a nickname that has been in use for many centuries.

It is widely believed that the name originated in 1794 when the Duke of Wellington spoke to a mortally wounded Private Thomas Atkins who described the fierce engagement of the day as “It’s all right sir, it’s all in a days work.”

The words used by Rudyard Kipling to describe Tommy are very appropriate in that he highlights the fact that these young men are those that the nation turns to in times of conflict. They are the same young men that can be a nuisance in the pub on a Saturday night and yet, when called upon to fight for their country, are prepared to give their lives in order that their fellow citizens may enjoy freedom from tyranny.

Sometimes, as described in this book, the effect on those young men can be so devastating that it inhibits their ability to adjust to post military life.

‘Shell Shock’ is introduced by Colonel Tim Collins. OC of the Royal Irish Regiment, Tim Collins gave a speech to his soldiers before the 2003 Iraq war which is often quoted and used as an example of how to deliver an inspirational speech. This is an excerpt.
We go to Iraq to liberate not to conquer. We will not fly our flags in their country. We are entering Iraq to free a people and the only flag which will be flown in that ancient land is their own. Show respect for them.There are some who are alive at this moment who will not be alive shortly. Those who do not wish to go on that journey, we will not send. As for the others I expect you to rock their world. Wipe them out if that is what they choose. But if you are ferocious in battle remember to be magnanimous in victory.

Iraq is steeped in history. It is the site of the Garden of Eden, of the Great Flood and the birthplace of Abraham. Tread lightly there. You will see things that no man could pay to see and you will have to go a long way to find a more decent, generous and upright people than the Iraqis. You will be embarrassed by their hospitality even though they have nothing. Don’t treat them as refugees for they are in their own country. Their children will be poor, in years to come they will know that the light of liberation in their lives was brought by you.

If there are casualties of war then remember that when they woke up and got dressed in the morning they did not plan to die this day. Allow them dignity in death. Bury them properly and mark their graves.

It is my foremost intention to bring every single one of you out alive but there may be people among us who will not see the end of this campaign. We will put them in their sleeping bags and send them back. There will be no time for sorrow.

The enemy should be in no doubt that we are his nemesis and that we are bringing about his rightful destruction. There are many regional commanders who have stains on their souls and they are stoking the fires of hell for Saddam. He and his forces will be destroyed by this coalition for what they have done. As they die they will know their deeds have brought them to this place. Show them no pity.

It is a big step to take another human life. It is not to be done lightly. I know of men who have taken life needlessly in other conflicts, I can assure you they live with the Mark of Cain upon them. If someone surrenders to you then remember they have that right in international law and ensure that one day they go home to their family.

The ones who wish to fight, well, we aim to please.

If you harm the regiment or its history by over-enthusiasm in killing or in cowardice, know it is your family who will suffer. You will be shunned unless your conduct is of the highest for your deeds will follow you down through history. We will bring shame on neither our uniform or our nation.

Regarding the use by Saddam of chemical or biological weapons, it is not a question of if, it’s a question of when. We know he has already devolved the decision to lower commanders, and that means he has already taken the decision himself. If we survive the first strike ,we will survive the attack.

As for ourselves, let’s bring everyone home and leave Iraq a better place for us having been there.


As with Col Collins speech, I found ‘Shell Shock’ to be a really powerful read. It stirred up emotions, made me laugh, made me cry. I had to put it down a couple of times as I found my emotional reaction overwhelming.
It isn’t a long book, it took me two hours to read it, but it is a very powerful tale of a soldier, recently returned from a theatre of war who is struggling to adapt to the comparative routine of civilian life.
Shell Shock’ is an original idea, well written and joins my personal list of favourite books. It takes the form of a diary, written by the anonymous soldier and edited by the author. You join Tommy Atkins just as he leaves the Army. He is receiving treatment for Post Traumatic Stress and he writes of his experiences with the Health Service and his family as he struggles to cope with his worsening condition.
Tommy goes home to his bickering parents and to a girlfriend, Shell, who adores him and is glad to have him back. As previously mentioned, the novel takes the form of a diary. Tommy chronicles his every day experiences – his attempts to find employment, his working relationships, his relationship with Shell, and with his parents, the ups and downs that gradually become overwhelming.
I recommend this as a book to buy. If you have any interest at all in the military, PTSD or in the way that stress affects family life, you will enjoy it. It will also open your eyes to the problems that many of young servicemen and women will be experiencing as they return from Iraq and Afghanistan.


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